At 96, Choi Ying-ching is robust and energetic as she bustles round her kitchen in Happy Valley. She gives a catty of small fresh oysters a final swill under the tap before pouring them into a large metal bowl, where she mixes them with celery and chives, water and potato starch – the ingredients for oyster fritters.
As her daughter Anna Fung Yee-yee and grandson Ernest Fung Kau-see look on, Choi talks about this Fujianese dish in her native tongue, Hokkien, before expounding on her desire that her grandchildren should always be well-fed. She had impoverished beginnings, one of 16 children, the start of a long life that as a four-month old baby girl could have been cut short if she had been drowned. Instead she was adopted by a neighbour in her coastal home village in Fujian province and growing up maintained a relationship with both her biological and adoptive families.
“My younger brother, his fingers were all broken from getting the oysters from the rocks,” she says. “We were very poor. I loved going to school but had to stop at primary four because of the war. I remember bombs falling, and more bombs. Food was scarce. We grew sweet potatoes and ate sweet potato and sweet potato leaves.”
She still enjoys sweet potato congee on a Sunday. Her oyster pancake (hau2 beng2 蠔餅) recipe and aspects of her life are part of a new bilingual book, Grandma Grandpa Cook 2 WasteNot Gourmet, a collaboration of tales of older and younger residents of Hong Kong. Some Hongkongers interviewed for the book are more than a century old, while others are young chefs keen to learn the recipes before they disappear, sometimes so they can put their own spin on them.
The starting point is food, but also learning from a generation where frugality was a necessity to survive, where often there was no money to buy rice, and where there was no waste (potato leaves, banana peel and egg shells were mixed back into the food) something to note at a time where food waste is a key contributor to landfills. But it is also a story of Hong Kong. There is the story of a widow in Tai O told decades later by her grandson. There are the fishing communities who would cook carefully on board their boats and who would use the burned rice in the bottom of the wok to make tea. We hear from immigrants beginning life in the city in subdivided accommodations.
There’s also some lovely nostalgia. We hear how the coconut candy firm Yan Kim Chee, which was set up in Hong Kong 1915, had a factory in Wong Chuk Hang in the 1960s, making the whole neighbourhood smell of roasted coconut. A company director recounts how two containers of coconuts would arrive every week from Malaysia to be split open and turned into syrup.
The book is a follow-up to Grandma Grandpa Cook, published 13 years ago by MCCM Creations. That publication was nominated for a French culinary award and also led to a CCTV television programme. It contained 40 stories from elderly contributors who shared their oral histories and recipes. It was a chance to record a piece of cultural and culinary history but also a chance to engage often lonely older people through the subject of food. Community artist Evelyna Liang Kan created the first book with photographs by the late German photographer Michael Wolf. It began as a therapy project after a social worker friend told Liang Kan that within the Ngau Tau Kok community were many elderly people living alone who due to the area being redeveloped had been told to move into other accommodation. It led to a sense of alienation and depression among some of those residents, so Liang Kan’s project was simply to get them to chat about food and give them a sense of fun and purpose.
“And this is how it all started,” she says. “We talked with the elderly and then we have fun. We talk about food making and then their eyes bling! And they say, ‘Ooh, I love to make this, I used to do this, the children love this.’ And I said, ‘Well, maybe we start off with food and their memory of the past.’ So I did that with theatre performance, drama, dance and singing.”
Liang Kan’s work led to an exhibition at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, followed by the book. At the time, there were no plans for a sequel. The process had been a therapeutic one for the storytellers and a chance to tell their grandchildren how they could survive should they face hard times again. But then the Covid-19 pandemic began in early 2020. Photographer Michelle Chan Wan-chee was confined at home with her husband, who works in the catering industry, and while her photographic inspirations usually lay on the streets and people outside, she found herself one day looking at an egg shell.
“I don’t know what got into me but the one day I was cooking the very classic faan1 ke2 caau2 daan6 (蕃茄炒蛋) – the Chinese dish of fried egg with tomatoes. Usually I just crack the egg, and throw the egg shell away, but I was looking at the shell and I thought actually this is quite beautiful. Maybe I should keep it aside and take some photos and then I started collecting all those things that actually we throw away and don’t eat. I let them dry and would see what I could do with them. And then I started taking photos of them.”
Chan’s photographs of rinds, banana peels, egg shells and prawn heads are examples of the items that we can reuse – hence the the WasteNot Gourmet of the book’s title, a concept that came from her husband Francis Law Cheong-yin. But they are also photographic art in themselves. When Chan showed her photographs to Liang Kan, it was the spur for the second book, which is a team effort by Liang Kan’s Art for All community art charity with Anna Fung (Choi’s daughter) and editor Siutao, with sponsorship from the Lee Kum Kee Family Foundation.
Back at Happy Valley, the oyster pancakes are progressing as Choi vigorously stirs the bowl’s contents with a wooden spoon while Ernest looks on. Choi shares her flat with her daughter, Anna Fung, Ernest’s mother. While Ernest, who works in tech, says he cooks quite a lot himself, with his grandmother he’s relegated to the role of observer only. “Any time my grandmother’s cooking, there isn’t really a chance to cook,” he says. “She’ll take over as she does it the right way. It’s ‘Do this, no you’re doing it wrong, sit down, I’ll do it,’ very Chinese,” he laughs.
Choi ladles one portion of oyster batter evenly into a hot, oiled wok. While she leans over the wok on the gas hob to turn the patty as it browns, she continues speaking in Hokkein as Fung translates. Choi explains that she was introduced to her future husband, a young man who had no interest in the tough lives of his fishing family, instead moving to Amoy (more commonly known as Xiamen today) to become a clerk at the university. Surrounded by books, he was happy, she says.
Amidst the hardship that followed the Communist Party’s rise to power in 1949, Choi’s husband came to Hong Kong in 1951 and worked as a middleman importing tinned goods from the mainland to sell to Fujianese migrants in the Philippines. Choi and Fung followed three years later, in 1954. The family would eventually grow to include six children, all living at first in shared accommodation. Unable to speak Cantonese, which Choi didn’t learn until later, it was a tough and lonely beginning in Hong Kong.
Grandma Grandpa Cooks 2 WasteNot Gourmet is a way to record that story, but it’s also a way for readers to learn about Fujianese food through Choi’s experience. “There aren’t many [Fujian] restaurants in Hong Kong,” says Fung. “There’s a famous one which is actually from Singapore,” she notes, referring to the Michelin-starred Putien, “but the restaurant doesn’t make the same food as my mother. The oyster pancake, for example. She also makes spicy pork rolls (ng5 hoeng1 juk6 gyun2 五香肉卷).” Ernest grew up on those rolls: pork, water chestnut, garlic, eggs, some starch, mixed together and wrapped up in a bamboo sheet. “Then you steam it,” she says. “And then you fry it when people arrive, so that it’s fresh.”
Flicking through the pages of Grandma Grandpa Cook 2 WasteNot Gourmet , there’s a fish omelette roll with mud carp meat, as well as the WasteNot Chinese Pancake (sik1 fuk1 coi3 pei4 baau2 leng5 惜福菜皮薄罉), whose ingredients include luffa skin, aubergine and carrot peelings. There’s a poignant story from a grandson’s perspective of how his grandmother was an indigenous inhabitant of Tai O. Initially married to a beef distributor and living near Western Market, her life was upended when he died and she returned to her home village with the children.
The grandmother worked as a porter and would take goods on foot from the cargo boats at the pier to the surrounding monasteries in the hills. Her grandson, Patrick Lo, recounts the vegetarian food she prepared with lichen and mushrooms, a form of Buddha’s Delight. Lo recounts how his family lived in Tuen Mun, so travelling to Tai O to a teenager felt like a long trip, with the family bringing back all the food his grandmother had bought and prepared. As he became older he would find other things to do. Then when he was 16, his grandmother died. He writes how now he tries to recreate her recipes, experimenting with the ingredients to attempt to get the unique tastes she created as a remembrance to her.
Many other stories in the book are told first-hand. In their flat in Wong Chuk Hang, Leung Siu-kam, 102, sits with his wife, Tong San-yiu, 101. They’ve been married for more than 80 years. Two of their grandchildren are also present: Marcela Cheng works in management at the Peninsula Hotel and lived with her grandparents for the first six years of her life. Her cousin Johnny Ma, a sales manager, was also cared for by his grandparents and would come after school for soya milk and pineapple bun.
When food was scarce during the Japanese military occupation in the early 1940s, as a young man Leung would buy water lily seeds from a Chinese herbal shop, which he would shell and partly cook. He would also buy bread rolls from a bakery, four for 20 cents and resell them at 10 cents each. He got work where he could during the war, including loading wooden planks onto a truck, finally finding more stable employment when he trained as a tailor.
“At the time of the liberation I worked as a labourer on a building site,” says his wife, “carrying stones in two baskets with a bamboo pole across my shoulder. I did this for years.” Sitting together, the family looks through the newspaper recipes that Leung would collect for cooking ideas. One dish of his that appears in the book is pan-fried pork chop with tomato and onions (faan1 ke4 joeng4 cung1 zyu1 paa4 蕃茄洋蔥豬扒). The key is to tenderise the meat first and add salt, sugar and white pepper. “Buy it on the bone, it’ll have more taste,” he advises, adding that you should also add two dashes of Worcestershire sauce as seasoning.
Leung and Tong’s marriage was arranged by their parents. Leung largely remained the cook throughout the years, and both Ma and Cheng now care for their elderly grandparents, motivated by the love shown to them when they were young. Tong remarks on how kind her husband has been to her over the decades, as were, she says, her four mothers in law before she came to Hong Kong, as her father in law had multiple wives. “They did all the cooking,” she says. While Leung has two dishes that appear in the book — the pork chop with tomato and onion, along with fried egg with bean sprouts (ngaa4 jip6 caau2 gai1 daan2 芽葉炒雞蛋) — these days the elderly couple also enjoy pizza, and particular Hawaiian with pineapple and ham.
In her Happy Valley kitchen, Choi dishes up the oyster pancakes for everyone to try. “A lot of what she’s taught me is that happiness is quite simple,” says Ernest. “If you have family and friends who take care of you, if you have food on the table, that’s all you need in life. She’s very proud that my mum was the first person to go to university in the family, and she’s very grateful that we have these opportunities available to us.” At mealtimes, he says, his grandmother often leans over to check his bowl is full, partly Chinese culture but also the legacy of the food scarcity of her childhood.
Her conversation done, her food prepared and eaten, Choi sits on a stool, puts on her shoes and takes off to catch a bus downstairs to take her to her regular game of mahjong.
Grandma Grandpa Cook 2 WasteNot Gourmet is published by MCCM Creations. It is available online at MCCM Creations and also via Lion Rock Press.